Today I spent 2 hours in the bowels of the university library. Tucked next to an acre of books in compressed storage behind chain-link fence is a door into an incredibly noisy room with three huge independent air-conditioner feeds and a giant bank of lead-acid batteries against one wall. It’s our primary data center of course. Racks of servers hooked up with fiber-optic cable to hundreds of terabytes of hard drives abound. Here the containers for all our network and server infrastructure is kept ice-cold in a deafening blast of air.
I enjoy visiting places like this because they stand in such contrast to the mushy and imaginary virtual world of software that I typically inhabit. At the end of the day, all those bits don’t just “exist” out in the “cloud” somewhere. They are burning up the circuit boards on a real piece of metal that will quickly melt if you were to stop blowing on them.
Like a little child blowing on his pinwheel when there is no breeze or running to keep his kite up when their isn’t enough wind, we have to put a lot of raw energy into our digital creations to keep them from falling to the ground. Entropy is a ruthless enemy and each day we pass on to the next generation the will and skills to fight it. Only crazy sub-creator humans bother with this.
That is why there will never be an artificial intelligence “singularity”. Any computer smart enough to become self-aware would get tired of the noise and effort and just drift back off to sleep.
As the geometer his mind applies
To square the circle, nor for all his wit
Finds the right formula, howe’er he tries
-Dante, Paradiso, Canto XXXIII, line 133-135
Here, Dante makes reference to an ancient geometry problem. Can you, using just a compass and a straight-edge, construct a square with an area equal to that of a given circle. This is called “squaring the circle”. It actually can’t be done. The reason is complicated, but it’s related to the reason why pi has an infinite number of decimal places.
In his Patterns of Plausible Inference, Polya mentions this as an excellent of example on when it’s OK to give up.
Construct, by ruler and compasses, the side of a square equal in area to a circle of given radius. This is the strict formulation of the famous problem of the quadrature of the circle, conceived by the Greeks. It was not forgotten in the Middle Ages, although we cannot believe that many people then understood its strict formulation; Dante refers to it at the theological culmination of the Divina Commedia, toward the end of the concluding Canto. The problem was about two thousand years old as the French Academy resolved that manuscripts purporting to square the circle will not be examined. Was the Academy narrow-minded? I do not think so; after the fruitless efforts of thousands of people in thousands of years there was some ground to suspect that the problem is insoluble. (p.17)
We young people often suffer from what Lewis calls “chronological snobbery”. We are eager to discard the denouncements of the older generations. THEY couldn’t do it we say, but WE can. We are smarter and have better technology and are more enlightened. They are backwards, but we are forwards. We are always solving problems they had no idea how to tackle. Why not this too? But this is foolery. Some things cannot be solved.
Theodicy is a good example. If God exists and is good, why does terrible stuff happen? You will not find a resolution to to this. The digits of its solution extend into interstellar space along with those of pi. But they don’t stop. A crucial element of trust is required. Some rough frameworks can be contructed (and learning to understand these is a good idea), but they will never quite put their finger on the solution. We offer only an approximation, not a solution.
The post-modern deconstruction of language is a refusal to give up when one really should give up. Nobody tries to square the circle anymore, unless they desire to waste their time. Does that make you bristle? Some trust is required – trust in words, trust in meaning, and trust in our fathers.
The practices of the church as the gathered people of the coming King precede the formulas and codes that would later emerge from their theoretical reflection. Before Christians had systematic theologies and worldviews they were singing hymns and psalms, saying prayers, celebrating the Eucharist, sharing their property, and becoming a people marked by a desire for God’s coming kingdom – a desire that constituted them as a peculiar people in the present.
-James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, p.139
First the thought, then the act, right? Our brain is like this giant computer that comes up with an instruction and then delivers it to our limbs. We have an idea and then we act on it. This is the way scientists and economists and philosophers often talk. The problem is the (usually) underlying assumption that we understand what we are doing – that we have a carefully developed theory behind our thoughts and the actions that come of them. On the ground though, this is nonsense. We are rarely so rational as the enlightenment assumes we are. We are not often so enlightened as we make ourselves out to be in the stories we tell about ourselves. We don’t know what we are doing half the time and we may never fully know what we are doing or why. Our own motivations are hidden from us. We have a positive word for this – it’s called intuition. Faith can happen at a thoroughly thought-out level, but it usually happens at a very half-contemplated state. This does not make it’s illegitimate, as if some Modern scientific standard was required. If that is the test, then nothing will ever pass.
The truth is, theories come later. The Nicene Creed is a great document about Christianity. But it was a good 300 years after the ascension before people came up with it. But they were singing songs only a few years later. The prayers of the lectionary were written and curated over a thousand and a half years. But people were praying things like them in the first century. Followers of Jesus reenacted the breaking of bread and the passing of the cup of wine before there existed any 500-page tome on sacramental theology. Did they “know what they were doing”? Of course not. But who cares? They were sharing property before someone told them they had a constitutional right not too. They were desiring the kingdom of God before they could articulate what that even was.
Our heads get in the game along-side our bodies. We don’t know what we are doing. But then we do. And then we know. And then maybe we can talk about it. This is why the man who said to Jesus, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) had it right. He was leading with the faith he had, while acknowledging that rest of it really wasn’t there. It wasn’t there. And neither is ours sometimes. But don’t let that stop you!
I don’t have a proper conversion experience to point to when I reflect on my own history – not the kind to make contemporary revivalist evangelicals happy anyway. I prayed some sort of prayer of repentance and acknowledgement of Christ when I was five years old. I remember praying with my father one evening before bed, but I don’t remember much else. When I was about fourteen and questioning, I remember asking God to give me a sign (I know, I know, this is forbidden, right?) but I immediately looked up and saw three shooting stars in the sky in quick succession. That has always made me smile. I’ve never doubted that was an answer.
There was never a time when I did not have some sort of faith in the Triune God as my creator, and Jesus as redeemer. But the world is a terribly broken and confusing place and for some theology only serves to further muddle it. For me though, and for others who think along these lines, it can serve to console. That is why we study it, even if obliquely.
The right explanation can help heal a mind distressed beyond endurance by events whose significance it cannot grasp.
– Robert Hammilton-Kelly
With this in mind, I might ask, what exposure to theological ideas have been the most profoundly influential to me? I’m 31 now. Perhaps this list will be different when I am 62. I suspect that it will only be longer. I will attempt to enumerate them as an exercise in reflection.
1. I grew up hearing bible stories and sermons told several times a week from infancy. The starting point for all of these was always a piece of scripture. Subjects like “logic” and “rhetoric” were utterly foreign in the schools I attended, both public and private. This was also the case in the schools my own parents attended as well, so such “clear thinking” techniques were only a distant rumor to me. So when, somewhere around the age of 12, I was given C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, it was as if someone shone a 1000 watt spotlight in my face. Here was someone articulating (in ridiculously tight prose) classic Christian reasons for, first just generic theism, and then finally for the special uniqueness of Christ. I know it’s a popular work, but at the time I had never been exposed to something so formal before. As a late adolescent with a thousand voices screaming for my future allegiance, someone giving a calm and steady apologia for why all that stuff I had learned about God was actually pretty legit made a very lasting impression in how I thought about nearly everything afterward.
2. Though I believe I am a Christian because God himself has laid out the way for me to follow and caused my feet to walk in that way, from an outside perspective, I’ve often told people that one of the main reasons I am a follower today can be traced back to a handful of highly influential summer camps. These were the camps up in the woods with chapel twice a day for an entire week with games of capture the flag every night. I was in a room of about 150 kids singing Shine Jesus Shine about a hundred times along with an overhead projector and one college guy with a guitar. Cold showers. Foosball. Making new friends, some of them even girls (which was unprecedented for this awkward teen), and being surrounded by young adults who talked incessantly about Jesus, scripture, and missionary work rather than girlfriends, cars, and the NBA playoffs, was like living on another planet – a better planet. Andrew Jones once asked, “Why does summer camp have to end?” in a post he wrote advocating new monastic communities. Alas, it did have to end, but it was not to be taken lightly and the memory remains.
3. My freshman year of college, I joined a young and energetic congregation. I remember one early weekend, before much homework had been assigned and before I got the memo that I was supposed to actually be at some church work party (sigh), I stole away to a cafe and sat down to read my bible. I ended up reading all of the Gospel of John in one shot. I remember reading all the red letters off the page and my body shaking as with electricity. Never before had the scriptures seemed so alive, it was if they were moments away from biting my fingers. That day it became tremendously obvious to me that there was no person in all human history more important than Jesus Christ – not even close. I haven’t changed my position on that. I don’t think this sort of thing generally happens reading other books. It’s like magic.
4. My second year into college, I was introduced to the work of Larry Crabb through a class offered at church. Digging deeper past the provided materials and handouts, I discovered his rather groundbreaking work of Christian psychology called Inside Out. Though I would recommend that to anyone as a first read, it was actually a later books of his, with the incredibly generic and somewhat misleading title ‘Finding God’ that really had a profound effect on me. Crabb presents a cognitive analysis of desire, frustration, anger, and love that is substantially different from other psychological positions on sin within evangelicism. Though I didn’t know it at the time, his work actually provides a legitimate gospel-infused blueprint for unilateral love. This stuff has, probably more than any teaching or piece of pastoral advice I’ve ever received, helped me to find a way forward when my thoughts have been very, very dark.
5. Several friends I met along the way after college recommended that G.K. Chesteron’s Orthodoxy was worth reading. This is where growing up baptist really has it’s disadvantages – Roman Catholic authors are forbidden and their works absent from libraries, shops, and pastor’s bookshelves. What a shame. I tell people that Orthodoxy is kind of like Mere Christianity on crack. In it, I was first seriously introduced to the idea that the ‘boring’ world we know in our day-to-day lives is actually enchanted and crazier than our Modern minds can imagine. Reading it, especially the second time, made me excited to be alive, excited to be a Christian, and even excited to study theology. Ha! People who have drank the Chesterton kool-aid often get a lot of mileage out it, and for good reason.
5. Robert Capon, Robert Webber and Thomas Merton via Michael Spencer. In a season of life when I felt weighed down by health problems, money problems, multiple screaming babies, and no church congregation as the previous one had been largely emptied of friends and mentors, I turned to the wild and sketchy internet for some answers or at least company. To my delight, what I found was the blog of Michael Spencer, the ‘Internet Monk’, a reluctant baptist minister working his way through many of the same “post-evangelical” theological and ecclesiastical difficulties that I was grappling with. His many writings and podcasts were what kept me hoping and stable through several very difficult years. I speak with no hyperbole when I say that I owe him a great debt both for his work and his friendship, though we only conversed via email on a few occasions. Sadly, Michael died suddenly of cancer three years ago. Along the way he introduced me to the three authors I’ve mentioned above. They formed the basis of much of his approach to spiritual formation, along with the Gospel of Mark.
6. Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, Rene Girard. Despite my differences with some of the thought of Doug Wilson, I have to give him credit for introducing me to Girard’s work through a series of blog posts years ago. (Ironically, I don’t think Wilson has near as much use for Girard anymore.) On a whim I decided to dive in and read Girard’s key work from the late 197os – Things Hidden. What I found was a crazy theory about human culture. The thing is, once you get used to it, you start to see it everywhere. Everyone thinks their philosophy explains stuff the best, but it turns out that 9 times out of 10, Girard’s theory does a better job of accounting for the mystery of war, hate, desire, religion, and, well, you name it. And at the very center of his work, is Jesus. He is the corner stone, the stumbling block that the whole human race trips over and falls upside-down into the future. Alright, so that’s nice, it tickled my brain, but has it changed my life? I think so. It’s given me peace in a post-9/11 world where confrontation with Islam sometimes seems like a terrifying possibility. It has helped me to both dismiss politicians and world leaders and also forgive them. It’s significantly helped me to not get tripped up on the issue of theodicy (why does God allow evil to happen?) and therefore to deepen my trust in Him. It’s helped me to not worry about the future and to more easily ignore naysayers. So God bless Girard and his helpful disciples such as Gil Baile, James Alison, and Jean-Michel Oughourlian. I little bit of right explanation goes a long way toward healing.
7. Two years ago, I visited Ethiopia for a week while in the process of adopting my forth child. Prior to that, I had never even been outside of North America. I heard stories told of Africa my enter life, but nothing could really prepare me for the actual experience. To recount them would probably sound cliche. I’ve written about them plenty elsewhere on this blog. Things have never really been the same since I came home. I feel a connection to the people I met as my brothers and sisters, more than I sometimes feel to my own neighbors. It seems more like home than my own pacific northwest U.S. where nearly nobody fears God. Their poverty is not as deep as ours. Many people report similar experience on short-term mission trips and whatnot. I used to poo-poo them. It’s actually really popular to deride these experiences lately, and the kind of criticism presented in books like When Helping Hurts should be seriously considered. Still, I have to say that visiting Africa is impossible to forget. I may not get to go back, but I would really like to.
8. What’s next? My children are growing up. My wife and I are growing older. Those things mean more than anything I’ve mentioned above, but they are highly personal. I can’t share those things much with you, the reader. I’ve only given you an account of the lesser, potentially transferable things. God uses things like this to ‘convert’ us to slightly different people, whether we are able to articulate what happened or not. I suspect I left out at least twice as many formative events as I have listed. No matter. What does the future hold? More challenges and more surprises – wonderful and terrible. My trust resides in the same one as before.
Theologian and Anglican priest Robert Capon passed away today. His writing has had a substantial influence on me and on Michael Spencer, who first got me into blogging. I’ve quoted him many times here. Oddly enough, one of his best-known works is a quirky cookbook called The Supper of the Lamb. It is probably more widely read than the work he considered his most important, an odd piece titled Between Noon and Three. May he rest in peace and I hope to meet him and chat when we both wake in the end.
I’m going to repost a couple of my very favorite Capon quotes below in his honor.
I’ll start with what is probably the best reflection on parenting ever:
I find that my fine generalities have dashed themselves to pieces against the six very concrete children that I have. I live surrounded by a mixture of violence and loveliness, of music and insensitivity. I take my meals with clods and poets, but I am seldom certain which is which. Nowhere is my life less reducible to logic than in my children; nowhere are my elegant attempts at system ground more violently to powder than under the stumbling stone of the next generation. Far from having advice to give you, I am dumbfounded by them and admit it. And yet I rejoice too, for nowhere is there so much to keep me sane. I apologize in advance but I know only one word to describe it: It is absurd.
-from Bed and Board
Then there is this wonderful passage on the nature of grace:
Grace is wildly irreligious stuff. It’s more than enough to get God kicked out of the God union that the theologians have formed to keep him on his divine toes so he won’t let the riffraff off scot-free. Sensible people, of course, should need only about thirty seconds of careful thought to realize that getting off scot-free is the only way any of us is going to get off at all. But if all we can think of is God as the Eternal Bookkeeper putting down black marks against sinners–or God as the Celestial Mother-in-Law giving a crystal vase as a present and then inspecting it for chips every time she comes for a visit…well, any serious doctrine of grace is going to scare the rockers right off our little theological hobbyhorses.
-The Romance of the Word, p.11
A proper take on the value of theology:
Theology – an enterprise that, despite the oftentimes homicidal urgency Christians attach to it, has yet to save anybody. What saves us is Jesus, and the way we lay hold of that salvation is by faith. And faith is something that throughout this book, I shall resolutely refuse to let mean anything other than trusting Jesus.
-from Kingdom, Grace, Judgment
And finally this oft-quoted passage on the nature of Christ’s work:
“Jesus came to raise the dead. He did not come to teach the teachable; He did not come to improve the improvable; He did not come to reform the reformable. None of those things works.”
Here, from Desiring the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith describes the social implications of the gospel and the kingdom that Christ inaugurated
Through baptism, God constitutes a peculiar people that makes up a new polis, a new religion-political reality (a “baptismal city”) that is marked by the obliteration of social class and aristocracies of blood. It is a motley crew: “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth” (1 Cor. 1:26). But that is the mark of the city of God, God’s upside-down kingdom: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are” (1 Cor. 1:27-28). The citizens of the baptismal city are not just have-nots; they’re also “are-nots”! And yet they are chosen and commissioned as God’s image bearers, God’s prince(sse)s and priests empowered to be witness of a coming kingdom and charged with the renewal of the world. (p.184)
A motley crew indeed is the church! The gospel undermines the stratification of humanity into classes (rich/poor, slave/free, noble/common, etc.) far more so than anything else ever has or could. Institutions of democracy, for all the good they can facilitate toward this just end, cannot forgive sins or change hearts. Ultimately, voting and other forms of theoretically equal representation or governance will always end up being more or less rigged by whoever has the money, the media, and the guns. To the degree that the community of little Christs behaves in the same strophic way, it is worldly – an earthly kingdom dressed up in platitudes. But not so with you He says.
Don’t be afraid of a magic world. God made it. He set it up that way.
Christian “materialism” (i.e., sacramentality) sometimes feels as if it teeters on the brink of paganism and superstition – because it sees the world as charged with the glory and grandeur of God.
-James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, p.32
“Charged with the glory and the grandeur of God”. That’s what the world is. It’s downright enchanted. Read Chesterton’s Orthodoxy if you don’t believe me. Contra this is the belief held by some Christians (Reformed Baptists in particular, but they are not alone) that absolutely NOTHING magic is EVER going on NOWHERE, NO-HOW. Baptism is just an outward physical action of something going on in your brain. The bread and the wine at the Lord’s table are just there to help us remember (with our heads) something important. Charismatic continuationists are crackers 100% of the time, no exceptions. Mystical union? Bunchacrap. Everything with real power happens in the space between your ears. The power of the universally creative incarnate God becomes “the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ”. Icons are forbidden – how dare you insinuate there could be anything remotely special about a picture? That’s just idolatry pure and simple, right? Wine and beer are forbidden – they seem just a bit too magical in what they do to your head so they are definitely out, along with mushrooms and cocaine and anything else that might confuse us. The only icon allowed is the Word, which still retains a sort of incantational spell power, at least in the King James Version. God is the only source of wonder and he was in the distant past and in the (hopefully near) future. Right now, in the present, we must be utterly Modern and affirm a disenchanted, sterile, decaying world.
Ugg. No thanks. I’ll take the enchanted reality that Triune God made any old day, even when it sometimes makes absolutely no sense.
So near and yet still so far, far away
So close, and yet still to come
Concealed, the seed is mysteriously growing
In hearts that will listen and hear
A treasure that’s hidden, a pearl of great price
A fortune for fools who believe
A kingdom of beauty, a kingdom of love
A kingdom of justice of justice and peace
A kingdom that holds all the wilds of creation
A kingdom where children will lead
Today at lunch I paged through an anthology of Seamus Heaney’s works from the university library. This is part of one of the best poems I came across called ‘From the Canton of Expectation’. I love the imagery of the children discarding their history for the modern fast life, only to wish or hope for it back. I am, and have been, all the people in this story at one moment or another.
Books open in the newly wired kitchens.
Young heads that might have dozed a life away
against the flanks of milking cows were busy
paving and pencilling their first causeways
across the prescribed texts. The paving stones
of quadrangles came next and a grammar
of imperatives, the new age of demands.
They would banish the conditional for ever,
this generation born impervious to
the triumph in our cries of de profundis.
Our faith in winning by enduring most
they made anathema, intelligences
brightened and unmannerly as crowbars.
I yearn for hammerblows on clinkered planks,
the uncompromised report of driven thole-pins,
to know there is one among us who never swerved
from all his instincts told him was right action
who stood his ground in the indicative,
whose boat will lift when the cloudburst happens.